Updated: Feb 20, 2020
By now everyone knows that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The stat has been cited ad nauseam in the press and for good reason. White evangelicals are the kingmakers within the Republican Party. Their support catapulted Trump to the nomination and ultimately to the White House. Trump’s historic unpopularity and unpresidential behavior (putting it mildly) have many asking why white evangelicals remain his most faithful supporters.
Last week, Andrew Walker, a professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an article in National Review to offer an explanation titled, “Understanding Why Religious Conservatives Would Vote for Trump.” Walker argues that Trump’s evangelical base deserve sympathy rather than derision. They are not hypocrites who’ve surrendered their religious convictions to sell their souls to Trump, he says. According to Walker most are “Reluctant Trump” voters who detest the president’s behavior but feel compelled to support him in order to save the lives of unborn children and stop the tide of anti-Christian liberalism in America.
Repeatedly throughout his article, Walker chides journalists and the media for over-simplifying the motives of evangelicals and unfairly criticizing their ongoing support for Trump. The white evangelicals he knows, “approach politics with far more complexity and internal tension than journalists claim.” In fact, Walker begins his article emphasizing complexity: “It’s a complicated situation for religious conservatives. But these are complicated times.” It’s these complications, says Walker, that should make us ache for conservative evangelicals who are trapped into supporting an odious president. “The constant criticism of religious conservatives’ voting en masse for Donald Trump never comes with a suggestion of better alternatives,” is the core of Walker’s defense. “What are religious conservatives...to do?”
Andrew Walker is not presenting a new argument. Since 2016 we’ve been hearing evangelicals defend their vote for Trump by claiming they had no other choice. “I had to hold my nose and vote for Trump,” was a common defense at the time. And often this rationale was linked to a moral obligation to vote for pro-life candidates. Walker deserves credit for finding a new way to recycle the “no other choice” argument, but it remains as unconvincing as ever.
“Who else am I supposed to vote for?” is a logical defense for white evangelicals in 2020, but Walker conveniently ignores the fact that religious voters had 16 other pro-life candidates to choose from during the 2016 Republican primaries but picked Trump anyway. No one can win the GOP nomination without the support of white evangelicals. Trump was not thrust upon them. They chose him.
John Fea’s book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, is the best explanation I’ve found for why they backed Trump over the other Republican options. (Check out my interview with Fea on the Holy Post episode 308.) Fea does not see the nomination of Trump as an anomaly, but as the product of 40 years of culture war rhetoric among evangelical conservatives. They didn’t merely want a stridently pro-life president. If they had, there were far better options in 2016 than Trump who was passionately pro-choice his entire life until running for President. Instead, Fea claims, there were other factors that convinced evangelicals to pick Trump (which I will address below), but chief among them was his belligerence toward their political and religious enemies. In other words, Fea makes a convincing case that white evangelicals did not pick Trump in spite of his character but because of it. Walker only speaks of evangelical discomfort and reluctance with Trump and does not address their record-breaking support for him. Yes, Walker is correct that it's unfair to paint all white evangelicals as enthusiastic Trump supporters, but it is equally incorrect to paint religious conservative as “reluctant” Trump voters when historic facts prove otherwise. So, while the media’s accusation of hypocrisy may not apply to every white evangelical who voted for Trump, in aggregate the label is not without merit.
Beyond ignoring 2016, Walker’s entire argument hangs on the evil of abortion and the belief that electing a pro-life president is the best or only way to end it. David French’s smart and profoundly biblical article on February 9th, “Will Somebody Please Hate My Enemies For Me?” directly addresses this abortion argument employed by many of the president’s religious supporters. French, an attorney, has spent his whole life in the fight against abortion and says he’ll never vote for a pro-choice candidate, yet he remains a Never Trump Republican.
French shows that abortions have dropped during every administration—whether the president has been pro-life or pro-choice—for the last 40 years. And more pro-life laws and regulations were passed during the Obama administration than any other. French does not give credit to Obama, but to local and state efforts by pro-life activists and lawmakers who between 2011-2014 have dramatically lowered the number of abortions. French also shows that the abortion rate is now lower than it was before Roe v Wade, and simply reversing that ruling via the Supreme Court is not the silver bullet solution many evangelicals assume it to be.
So, the argument that evangelicals must vote for Trump to save the unborn is demonstrably untrue. It’s the product of a fairytale that’s been told to evangelical voters for decades to keep them loyal to the Republican Party. Ending abortion will take far more than a decision by the Supreme Court. David French, a conservative, Christian, pro-life, Republican understands that, which is why he remains unwaveringly opposed to Trump while continuing his efforts—legal, moral, and spiritual—to end abortion.
But let’s give Walker the benefit of the doubt and assume ending abortion does require a Republican in the White House. Or let’s at least assume that’s what most evangelical voters think is the case. Does that explain why most white evangelicals voted for Trump? Not according to research done by Walker’s own denomination. Lifeway, the research branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that in 2016 the issue of abortion ranked seventh in importance among evangelical voters behind other issues like lowering taxes and immigration. Seventh!
Maybe this explains why Walker dismisses the value of research data in his defense of evangelicals. He writes, "Statistics do not, and cannot, capture the complexity of religious conservatives.” Instead, he uses anecdotal stories like that of his friend, Steve. He describes Steve as a compassionate Christian who takes his faith seriously and serves the homeless. Steve also believes “abortion is America’s Holocaust.” His support for Trump, says Walker, is driven by the moral imperative to save unborn children.
I have no doubt Steve is sincere in his pro-life convictions as well as his view, however uninformed, that a Republican administration will always curtail abortion more than a Democratic one. I know Christians like Steve; no doubt you do as well. But such anecdotes do not change the data from Walker’s own denomination that shows abortion is not the litmus test issue for most white evangelical voters. It’s not even close. Trump’s promises to lower taxes, build a wall, and ban Muslim travel to the U.S. far out ranked abortion. It’s more comforting to believe evangelicals back Trump from a moral desire to save lives, but the data reveal less godly motives. Sincere pro-life believers like Walker’s friend Steve are the exception rather than the rule.
But, again, let’s give Walker the benefit of the doubt and imagine abortion really is the top issue for white evangelicals, and that most are profoundly disturbed by Trump’s immorality, corruption, and buffoonery. Walker asked, “What are religious conservatives to do?” Well, there are actually numerous moral options available. First, they could have supported Trump's impeachment and removal from office like Mark Galli said in his December Christianity Today editorial. Instead, white evangelicals overwhelmingly opposed his impeachment and still remain his most loyal base of support. I have yet to hear how replacing Trump with a President Pence would have hurt the pro-life cause. Pence’s pro-life, evangelical bona fides are far better than Trump’s.
Or, another option would have been for religious conservatives to call for and support a primary challenger to Trump in 2020 who is pro-life and pro-religious liberty. It’s not unprecedented. Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent President Ford in 1976, and Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter in 1980. In fact, President Trump had two primary challengers this year—Joe Walsh and Mark Sanford. Sizable support from religious conservatives could have made either a viable alternative to Trump, or at least been used as leverage to curtail the President’s worst instincts. Instead, religious conservatives continued their unwavering support for Trump.
Walker’s argument that religious conservatives have been backed into a corner violates his own assertion that politics and morality are “complicated.” Indeed, they are complicated. Ending abortion is complicated. Political support is complicated. So why is he demanding critics of religious conservatives abandon their simplistic view of Trump supporters as hypocrites while simultaneously excusing white evangelicals’ from the complicated options available to them with shallow slogans like “What are we supposed to do?” His own moral reasoning betrays him.
Finally, while Walker admits Trump’s character faults his article does not address the far more serious systemic, institutional, and constitutional damage this administration is doing which will have ramifications for decades. Whether welcoming the interference of foreign powers into elections, the erosion of checks-and-balances between branches of government, breaking of international treaties, or White House interference in the Department of Justice and the military chain of command, this administration is laying the foundations for an imperial presidency that could have terrible ramification for the future of the republic. I remain less worried about Trump's abuses of power than those of a future president employing arguments put forth by Trump's administration to justify Constitution-shattering acts. Are lower taxes, a partial border wall, and a few federal judges worth the erosion of constitutional norms that have endured for two centuries?
A bit of history is helpful here. William Garrison was the most famous abolitionist of the 19th century. Fueled by his faith, he recognized and denounced the evil of slavery. But Garrison also believed the entire United States government and the Constitution were implicated in the evil of slavery. Therefore, Garrison called for the dissolution of the Union, the federal government, and the Constitution. Slavery was so evil, he believed, it demanded the end of the United States itself.
I heard the echoes of Garrison in Andrew Walkers’ defense of evangelicals who support Trump. Walker may well recognize the existential threat Trump poses to the republic, but he argues religious conservatives, like his friend Steve, are ok with that. "For Steve, saving abstractions like ‘America' and its ‘Institutions' can make America a lot less worthy of survival if abortion on demand continues apace.” In other words, abortion is so evil it not only excuses Trump’s personal immorality and corruption, but also anything illegal or unconstitutional the President might do to undermine the country including treason. Like Garrison, some evangelicals are willing to burn down the whole house of government because abortion is intolerable and Trump is their instrument of arson. If that isn’t a moral argument guilty of over simplification, what is?
Thankfully, history also shows us an alternative approach that is moral and Christian. Garrison’s most famous disciple was Frederick Douglass, the former slave and gifted orator. Eventually, Douglass broke from Garrison’s extremism and came to believe that the best way to end slavery was to strengthen the federal government rather than overthrow it. Douglass also came to utilize the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as moral documents showing slavery’s inconsistency with American ideals. Douglass understood that the country’s legal and governmental systems, while flawed and corrupted by support of slavery, could be redeemed and employed for good rather than evil. This led Douglass to ultimately support Lincoln’s efforts to free the slaves while preserving the Union.
I bring up this history because if Walker and pro-life evangelicals truly want to end the evil of abortion, then they should care about preserving and strengthening the systems of government that have made the United States a beacon of human rights and dignity throughout the world. Endorsing a president who acts above the law may provide short-term political wins on the right to life or religious liberty, but will ultimately undermine the foundations those rights are built upon. Frederick Douglass affirmed the founding vision of America that “All men are created equal.” He wanted that vision expanded to include African-Americans, whereas Garrison risked throwing the baby out with the bathwater by calling for the end of America altogether. Likewise, what is the point of expanding Constitutional protections to the unborn with an instrument like Donald Trump who is daily undermining the Constitution itself?
Andrew Walker’s passionate defense of white evangelicals and religious conservatives buckles under the slightest scrutiny. He places blame for the declining moral authority of white evangelicalism on journalists who offer simplistic explanations for evangelical support of Trump, but then provides an equally simplistic defense that ignores history, data, and the moral alternatives available to religious voters. I suspect Walker knows that white evangelicalism is facing a crisis in America, and that its support of Trump has done lasting damage to its moral credibility, its mission, and its institutions. But rather than offering a lament for the movement's captivity to political tribalism, he’s offering a weak justification that, like its politics, is built more on wishful thinking than solid moral reasoning.